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Commentary: Republicans set their sights on control of higher education in Ohio

an arial view of students from behind in black cap and gowns with yellow tassles
Good Free Photos

Republicans in the Ohio General Assembly are an odd bunch.

Long ago, most of us were taught in high school civics classes that the Republicans were the party of limited government interference with people's lives; the "hands off" party, as opposed to the "hands on" Democratic Party.

We have since been made aware that was a load of hooey.

Such Republicans do not exist in the Ohio Statehouse, at least.

With their veto-proof "supermajority" in both the House and Senate, they can pretty much do as they please. Who's going to stop them? The governor? Yeah, right. That's a joke, friends. Bazinga, as Dr. Sheldon Cooper would say.

Within the last few years, Republicans in the legislature have done power grabs with legislation to take over how elections in Ohio are conducted; take away reproductive rights; create district maps that allow legislators to choose their own voters instead of the other way around; do the bidding of gun lobbyists; and strip the state board of education of any control over K-12 education and giving it to the governor.

And apparently, they're not done yet.

Along comes State Sen. Jerry Cirino with his Senate Bill 83, a set of sweeping do's and don'ts for Ohio's universities and colleges, including some private ones, which he calls "a course correction" from what he sees as a slippery slope to a "woke-based" higher education system in Ohio.

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Opponents of Cirino's bill call it an "over-reach" that would do "irreparable harm" to a fully functioning and well-respected system of higher education in Ohio.

"This is a solution in search of a problem," said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP Ohio). "I really don't know why the senator is trying to pick this fight."

Cirino is an amiable fellow who grew up in Cleveland's Little Italy but has made a home for himself and his family in Lake County, a comfortable suburban community just east of Cleveland.

Ohio Statehouse
Jerry Cirino.

"I was the first in my family to go to college," Cirino told me. "I have personally seen what it has done for my family. Higher education has always been my top priority."

Senate Bill 83, he said, "is about quality education. I hear a lot of talk about indoctrination in some of our college courses. The idea that you have to think certain things and certain ways. Students may have to attest to certain beliefs in order to succeed.

"What I am interested in is intellectual diversity."

So what does Cirino — along with the seven fellow Republicans who co-sponsored his bill — want to do?

A lot.

He made it clear to me that he could have split this into several separate bills but decided to "shoot the moon" with the whole package.

Here are some of the things Senate Bill 83 would ban:

  • requiring diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) training for students and faculty. Cirino says Ohio State University has 99 people running DEI programs. "I don't know why we need this," Cirino said. "What is this training for?"
  • strikes by employees, including the faculty.
  • "bias" in classrooms, with no hint of what the state would consider "bias."
  • forbidding programs that partnered with the People's Republic of China, "our enemy."

Here’s what the bill would require:

  • That every student take an American history course, with a syllabus set out in the bill
  • Public syllabuses and teacher information online
  • Professors would face tenure evaluations based on if the educator showed bias or taught with bias — including student evaluations
  • That educators teach so students can reach their “own conclusions."

The banning of DEI training is particularly hard to explain.

When pressed on whether or not DEI training is a requirement for graduation in any Ohio college or university, Cirino admitted that it is not.

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"There are apparently some medical schools around the country who have that requirement," Cirino said.

But not in Ohio.

One of his objections to DEI training is that "it can pit one race against another."

On a personal note, I have had DEI training at my place of employment. In my experience, it brought people together rather than push them apart.

From the point of view of AAUP Ohio, the most egregious part of Senate Bill 83 is the ban on strikes by unions at universities.

"Students pay up front for a semester in college,'' Cirino said. "Why should students be used as pawns in union negotiations?"

The AAUP's Kilpatrick believes that shows a complete lack of understanding of how labor negotiations work.

"The collective bargaining process works," Kilpatrick said. "Strikes at universities are very rare."

When it does happen, though, Kilpatrick said, there is no reason to blame the unions.

"When a strike happens, that is a failure of management to bargain in good faith," Kilpatrick said. "That's not the fault of the workers."

Given the track record of the GOP supermajority in the legislature, Cirino believes he can get this bill through the Senate and the House and signed into law by Gov. Mike DeWine.

"I think there is broad support for this," Cirino said. "I've had some people tell me they want to go further. I've never thought of myself as a moderate."

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He said he hopes some Democrats in the legislature sign on to this bill. If I were him, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for that to happen. And the fact is, he doesn't need them.

"This bill has a lot of things that are going to inflame the opposition," Cirino said.

Inflaming the opposition has never stopped statehouse Republicans before. Hard to imagine it will now.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.